By Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau
January 16, 2014 – Updated 16 hours ago
No matter what President Barack Obama announces Friday when he unveils changes to the federal government’s surveillance programs, he won’t appease critics on the most important question he faces: what to do with the massive collection and storage of phone records.
Obama is looking to reduce the amount of information the government may collect, a move that will anger those who think that bulk collection helps prevent terrorism but still won’t satisfy civil libertarians who think it remains intrusive and unnecessary.
“It’s almost inevitable someone is unhappy at the end of the day,” said Todd Hinnen, former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department.
Obama considered asking a separate organization – perhaps a government contractor – to store the phone data. He now is expected to allow the information to remain with the National Security Agency while calling on Congress to determine the program’s future, according to those familiar with White House deliberations. In addition, he might limit gathering records from those further removed from the original suspects and reduce the number of years the data may be retained.
Information about Obama’s possible actions Friday come from interviews with administration and Capitol Hill staffers and advocacy groups, some of whom attended meetings at the White House, who aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations.
The program – which collects the phone numbers dialed but not the content of the calls – was authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act and started after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. It didn’t require court approval until 2006.
The extent of the government’s surveillance programs became public after the release of secret documents by former contractor Edward Snowden. They showed the NSA has been collecting the telephone and email records of tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil and spying on a host of global institutions, including the World Bank.
Obama is expected to announce several changes – including appointing a public advocate to appear before the nation’s secret surveillance court, which now hears arguments only from the government, and stopping spying on some foreign leaders – but not far-reaching ones. In many cases, he’ll defer to a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.
The Obama administration already has rejected two recommendations: separating two offices, the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command, and tweaking an investigative tool – dubbed the national security letter program – that allows the FBI to quickly demand credit, financial and Internet subscriber information using a form of administrative subpoena issued without court order.
“He starts from the absolute commitment to maintaining the security of the American people . . . as well as the commitments we have to our allies,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. “He has also said that we can and should take steps to make the activities we engage in . . . more transparent, in order to give the public more confidence.”
Obama will announce his changes Friday at the Department of Justice after a months-long review, but his speech doesn’t end the process. He’ll continue to make changes after further review, Carney said.
Gary Schmitt, a former intelligence committee staffer on Capitol Hill who now serves as a co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a research center, said the president had a tough job on his hands because he supported the NSA while acknowledging that the American people were uncomfortable. “He is engaged in shadow boxing,” he said. “It’s more perception than reality.”
An advisory panel created by Obama recommended nearly 50 changes to the NSA programs, including the contentious bulk collection of phone records.
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